Brown rice may be less popular than its polished white alternative, but nutritionally it boasts plenty of benefits, by Hatty Willmoth.

In comparison to light and fluffy white rice, chewy and slow-to-cook brown rice may not be everybody’s favourite.

But brown rice is not to be underestimated.

While white rice has been processed (‘polished’) to remove its outer layers, brown rice retains its bran and germ.

In other words, it’s a whole grain – and that means it contains more fibre.

1. Brown rice for diabetes

When we eat white rice, the carbohydrate is quickly turned into sugar (glucose) and released into the bloodstream to be used as energy.

Our blood sugar levels might dramatically rise, but they drop soon afterwards, along with our energy levels.

In the long run, if we keep eating lots of sugar and refined carbohydrates, our blood sugar control mechanisms may become less effective, which increases our risk of developing conditions such as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

However, the carbohydrate in brown rice is wrapped in fibre (plant-matter that our bodies can’t digest) so it is broken down into glucose more slowly.

Therefore, when we eat brown rice, we get a slower release of energy compared with the sharper blood sugar spike that might come from eating white rice.

One study suggested that switching 50g of white rice to brown rice, per week, could reduce diabetes risk by as much as 16%.

2. The magic of fibre

But the higher fibre content of brown rice affects more than just blood sugars.

Eating whole grains can be useful for weight management, because they can make us feel fuller for longer on the same quantity of carbohydrate.

Fibre can also be great for the gut. It helps promote regular bowel movements and is thought to keep our gut bacteria happy, which can have knock-on effects on our immune system, mental health, and risk of multiple chronic diseases.

Read all about it here: Why is fibre important?

3. Good for the heart

Fibre is good for the heart too. The British Heart Foundation says: “Higher intakes of fibre are also associated with a lower risk of heart and circulatory disease, and some cancers.”

And there is some evidence that a compound found in the outer layers of brown rice may improve heart health through another mechanism.

Brown rice is thought to contain substances that inhibit a protein called angiotensin II, which is known to elevate the risk of high blood pressure and contribute to the hardening of the arteries.

Brown rice may therefore offer some protection from high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries, as well as heart and circulatory disease, due to its fibre content and specific compounds in its outer layers.

4. Packed with nutrients

Most of the nutrients in a whole grain of rice can be found in its outer layers, which are milled away when it’s processed to create white rice.

That makes brown rice a better source of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, vitamin B1 (thiamine) and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).

There are 10 times the amount of vitamin B1, for instance, in brown rice compared to unfortified white rice.

Affecting the heart, nerves and muscles, vitamin B1 deficiency (beriberi) has been found to affect populations that rely on white rice for survival.

5. It's an antioxidant

Brown rice also has antioxidant properties. Antioxidants have been associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases.

In January 2023, researchers identified the main antioxidant of brown rice as cycloartenyl ferulate (CAF).

CAF does not just protect cells through its antioxidant effects; researchers think it also boosts the production of antioxidants within other cells.

A hybrid compound of polyphenol and phytosterol (two different types of antioxidant), CAF may lower cholesterol levels and suppress inflammation.

6. To soak or not to soak?

Whether we should soak or rinse rice before cooking is sometimes hotly debated, and the type of rice makes a huge difference.

Those who swear by rinsing white rice before cooking say that it achieves a better texture; rinsing white rice removes excess starch and any debris (albeit unlikely to find its way into supermarket rice) for fluffy, shiny, separated grains.

However, rinsing white rice may also wash off some of its mineral content, such as iron and vitamin B1.

Yet neither of these are as important for brown rice; its starch is encased in fibre, so it is unlikely to get either as sticky or as fluffy as white rice, and its mineral content should not be lost by rinsing.

But soaking rice in water for several hours before cooking is more helpful with brown rice than white – some may even say it’s necessary.

That’s because it reduces cooking time and can lower the arsenic content of brown rice.

Arsenic is a toxic heavy metal that is found in tiny quantities in legumes, pulses and grains.

Rice tends to contain higher quantities of arsenic and in a more toxic form, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The FSA says that arsenic can increase the risk of illnesses in humans, including cancer, but that there are maximum levels of arsenic which are allowed in rice, and manufacturers must ensure their products contain as little arsenic as possible.

Soaking rice overnight or for several hours before cooking can significantly reduce its arsenic content.

The same is true of cooking rice in excess water and then draining it; this can reduce up to 60% of arsenic present. Rinsing, meanwhile, has little effect on rice’s arsenic content.

Soaking may also make nutrients in the rice more absorbable.

It can inhibit phytic acid, which is a compound that gets in the way of the digestion of minerals such as zinc and iron.

So, more soaking means less phytic acid, which means better digestion of the good stuff.

Plus, soaking softens the rice and makes its cooking time much shorter. Otherwise, brown rice can take between 20 and 50 minutes to cook, depending on the variety.

In short, rinsing brown rice may not do much, but soaking it overnight – though a faff – can lower its arsenic content, boost its nutritional value, and reduce its cooking time.

7. Leftovers: cooling, freezing and reheating rice

A word of caution: rice can cause food poisoning.

A bacterium called Bacillus cereus can live on rice, even if it’s been heated and reheated, and it can make us ill.

The FSA therefore has some advice about how to treat leftover rice.

Firstly, when faced with leftover rice, don’t leave it in the pan to cool. The longer it’s left at room temperature, the more likely it is that the bacteria will make it unsafe to eat.

It’s better, says the FSA, to help rice cool down quickly and to put it in the fridge or freezer within an hour of cooking.

If you've cooked in large batches, you may need to divide the rice into smaller portions to help it cool more quickly.

Then leftover rice kept in the fridge should be eaten within 24 hours, and if it’s been put in the freezer it needs to be defrosted in the fridge before it’s heated up.

Rice needs to be reheated thoroughly before it’s eaten, so make sure it’s steaming hot all the way through and then eat it straightaway.

The FSA also advises that, once rice has been reheated once, it shouldn’t be reheated again.

On the NHS website, it says that consuming rice containing the B. cereus bacteria can cause vomiting and diarrhoea between one and five hours afterwards, but that “symptoms are relatively mild and usually last about 24 hours”.

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